Jay Stapley

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The ‘T’-word: guitarists and tone

My heart sinks every time I see a post on guitar forums about tone, and I was encouraged to find that Michael Britt, creator of some of the best Kemper profiles available, has the same thoughts as I do. 

Here they are;

There are two fundamental truths about electric guitar sounds: 

First, to get a truly great classic tone you have to play really very loud. This allows the interaction between the speakers and the pick ups to deliver sustain without distortion, and the sheer volume of the sound will make it seem “warmer.” What you perceive as warmth is (in engineering terms) lower-mid frequencies between 200-400Hz. Most engineers call this “mud.”

Second, every front of house engineer and mix engineer will immediately eviscerate your precious tone by removing the lower mids to make room for the bass , drums, and vocals. If you ever have the opportunity to go into the mix engineers’ control room after recording your guitar and listen to your guitar track(s) in solo, you will be utterly shocked by what you hear.  All that “warmth” will be gone, and some of those crispy highs will have been removed to make space for the cymbals and (if present) a female lead vocal.

When playing live, turning up to a gig and turning up to Gilmour-like volume to get your “tone” will ensure you don’t get booked back, and any hope of sounding good in the mix will be lost because you’ll be playing so loud that the front of house person will immediately insist that you turn down, or will turn up everything else to the point where the band is unpleasantly loud. Again, don’t expect a repeat booking. 

So, what to do? Bite the bullet of reality, learn the science of audio, and understand how to find your place in the mix. Use compression to help achieve sustain, and playing with thumb & fingers (it works for Jeff Beck!) will help produce a much rounder sound. Use less distortion unless the genre demands hi-gain sounds. Distortion uses up space in the mix and removes all dynamics from your playing. The waveform looks (and sounds!) like a house-brick, with no attack portion and no decay either (or very slow decay at least.)

If you don’t understand the technical terms I’ve used you have no business inflicting your sound on other people’s ears, least of all those of your fellow musicians. Educate yourself: it will improve you as a guitarist as much as playing scales if not more.

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